About the Author: what’s the point?

In which I am a judgmental bitch. Again.

“About the Author” — what is the point of these pages at the end of the book?

That sounds harsh, so let me take a step back and ask instead what purpose do the pages serve?

The reason I ask is that as I finished an ebook and paged forward to check for an epilogue or other situational wrap up for the characters I’d gotten to know, instead I found an “About the Author” page. Which shared information about the nationality, sexuality, hobbies, work history, and drink preferences of the author*. That’s all well and good, but part of me wonders why the author and publisher bother to include that sort of information in paper or electronic books. Does it sell more copies? Do readers want to know that sort of thing? Do the (often twee) blurbs lend some sort of legitimacy or gravitas to the author, making them (and thus their books) more appealing and marketable to readers? Is it just another example of the very personalized relationship that exists between the romance genre body of authors and their readership?

And don’t get me started on author photos! Do author photos sell books? Is the ROI worth it? Some author photos are lovely, while others look like vanity photo shoots gone wrong or quickly snapped photos by a family member.** And then there are the author photos that appear to conflate the author with characters. I didn’t have a problem with the Nora Roberts photo in NYC in a leather jacket but other readers did. Laura Lippmann had a photo that seemed sort of Tess Monaghan-ish to me once. Dr. Maura Isles seems to have a lot in common with Tess Gerritsen. Etc.

Speaking personally (obviously, because I’m not entitled to speak for anyone else), the author bio or blurb is…really not relevant to my reading experience unless there is something specific to the author’s background that lends her/him some additional authority or legitimacy. Writing a book in which a newly discovered Emily Dickinson poem is key? Then your Ph.D. in 19th century American Lit would lend a degree of authenticity to your writing for me. (Of course, that can always backfire; see Sunita’s portion of the joint review of In the Arms of the Marquess and subsequent post on “mistoricals“.) Otherwise, eh, not so much.

As anyone who has checked out my monthly reading summaries can tell, I read a fair amount of m/m romance, which for various reasons has required ambiguous pseudonyms for marketing purposes. One of the things that drives me crazy is women writing with male pseudonyms who openly admit on their blogs or elsewhere that they are not men, yet who still use “he” in their author bios. I absolutely understand the marketing decision about choosing an ambiguously gendered pseudonym, but using the wrong pronoun to further the ambiguity feels dishonest and disingenuous.

What is it then that I look for in an author blurb? Truly, all I want to know about it is the author’s backlist. Give me a link to a (current) author website or give me the names of a couple books in the author’s backlist. Tell me if there is another book following this one, if it’s a series. The information about hobbies, childhood writing aspirations, all that jazz, it could go on the authors blog or personal page of their website, where readers who want that personal connection with an author can seek it out.

An example of a brief, helpful author bio that works (for me) is Josh Lanyon’s in The Dickens With Love. It tells readers that he’s been a Lambda Award finalist (validation!); mentions his most popular series (marketing!); and gives links to his webpage and Yahoo! group, as well as listing the books he has published with that publisher (more marketing!). And that’s it.

Don’t give me a list of other authors published by the same publisher (wrong venue for that information, thanks). Preaching at me about social issues and including pages of social services data may be appropriate, depending on the content of the book, or it may just be alienating, and the line can be hard to find.

I’m kind of curious now: when did author bios become standard in books? Setting aside the different privacy zones and expectations of the times, would Charles Dickens or Jane Austen have included a blurb about their childhoods and non-writing activities in the backs of their books?

What do other readers look for in author blurbs? Do you read them at all or are they just padding at the back of the book to increase the page count?

*I have some of these things in common with the author, and am not offended/shocked/disgusted/negative-adjective-of-your-choice-here by any of them. My query is related more to the marketing purpose of the author blurb, and more general speculation about what readers want or need to know about an author in order to buy their books.

** I <3 Nora Roberts, I do, for so many reasons ranging from her immense backlist to her firm position on what she writes and how. But an examination of her author photos in the original editions of her books dating back to the early 90s shows a progression of hairstyles and colors that are not always flattering.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “About the Author: what’s the point?

  1. I’m always slightly sceptical of author bios that state that they’re happily married to the man of their dreams. I never believe these assertions if I’m honest. I often think that they want us readers to believe that they have their very own romance hero, and I just don’t buy it. One NY author used to go on about how great her hubby was and how romantic, blah, blah blah, then a few months later, I find out that they’re going through a divorce. It’s like they believe that because they write romance books, their life should imitate their art. Men can be arseholes the world over, regardless of whether their wives write romance or not. Readers get that. I think.

    Re author photographs, I find that they’re generally terrible. Hate the Make-over portrait photos, with the soft focus the most.

  2. I’m not big on the lists of other books either. Or the social service messages. I try to remember that the latter might be new information for some readers. Still, it’s disconcerting. For YA books, I can see it. But for books aimed at adults (ebooks, no less, which suggests a certain level of knowledge about how to find stuff on the internet) it seems a bit odd.

    As for the author bios, I know there are plenty of readers who want more information about the author. I usually just want a list of their other books, in series order if they write series. But yeah, I think the author bios are more prevalent in romance because of the desire to create a personal, more intimate relationship.

  3. I think for me, they serve as a memory jogger. So if I read an author bio and I get some random detail about them, I may not care at the time, but it kind of gets filed away and somehow helps me remember the author so that if I see another book by them, I think – “name sounds familiar… ” … maybe an image will pop up of some bad author photo and I’m like.. yeah, read a book by them, let’s look at the blurb for this one, was it this book? No, but this is similar.. Oh look same author picture in the back – yes I remember this random bit about their fencing hobby, what a dork. I shall buy.

  4. I like author bios. I haven’t noticed that they are more prevalent in romance than in other published works simply because I see them in almost all books. I don’t necessarily read them but I like to know they are there. Reasons I read author bios: really liked the book, want to imagine I can like the author; book involved a real-life topic, want to confirm legitimacy; book was totally off the wall, want to see if author had some sort of life experience that inspired it.

    However, I do know how to use the internet so I’m happy to find the info there, as well. :)

    • I think romance author bios tend to be more “cutesy” than bios in other genres. As if the author or publisher is trying to make them more personally appealing as a way to establish a relationship with the reader or make the reader more interested in buying books written by that author. I don’t begrudge the marketing effort generally, I just feel a little condescended to sometimes. Like I’m reading a facebook entry rather than professional work.

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